The Decriminalisation of Sex Workers

Catherine Stephens, an activist with the International Union of Sex Workers is also a member of the GMB trades union’s branch for people who work in the sex industry. She loves her job and came to tell Royal Holloway students why the stigma around what she does should be diminished, as part of the SU’s SHAG week. However, I question if Stephens has really grasped the enormities of what she does and advocates.

One in twenty students go into sex work in the UK to pay for fees, and being close to London we are in proximity of the diversity and mass policing that such an industry involves. Since 1999 it has been estimated that there are 80,000 people in the UK working in the sex industry. Stephens argues that the government’s definition of what constitutes sex work is too broad and contends that the legislation concerning indoor sex work is somewhat unfair. She tells the students that a senior police officer commented that a “Brothel exists in space and time.” As Stephens unpacks what this means her stance on the subject is exposed to paradoxes and contradictions. For in one instance there is the argument that if sex work occurs indoors, anyone in that building faces prosecution. Yet then if the sex worker decides to work for themselves in isolation they automatically put themselves in danger; with no witnesses and being in violation of the law it would seem that in either case there is vulnerability that the sex worker places on themselves or those surrounding them.

Stephens blames the current legislation and policing of sex work for this increased vulnerability. Naming it “Police as prosecution rather than protection.” The sex worker struggles to turn to the police if they are in danger as they face prosecution themselves and in many cases there is a problem of migration. Vulnerable women come into this country and can easily get work in the sex industry. Stephens argues that they are at an increased danger because of the limits of their passport and visa, if they have one. She tells us about a woman who went to the police because she was raped but before the case even got to court she was deported by boarder control. Being quick to criticise the police and boarder control Stephens has not considered why the UK has these implements in place. Rape is wrong under any circumstance and anyone who has been raped should be able to go to the police and receive help but, I believe the questions that should be addressed, alongside the rape investigation, are why did she not have the correct documents and why she is working in the sex industry?

“Harm is suffered by the women who sell sex.” Political talk is in gendered violence and Stephens provides multiple accounts as to why the current stigma in politics suggests that women in the sex industry work for ‘paid rape.’ Legislation on the street has been running since 1959 and has been prosecuting those buying sex since 1985. However, in 2009 this legislation was tightened up and so anyone from driving slowly through a Red Light District to conversing with a worker could be prosecuted. This has meant that for the worker, judgment in conversation and negotiation is difficult as they are unable to converse openly about limits, locations and prices, making the women workers increasingly defenceless. For example in Liverpool on a busy night there can be between 30-40 people working the streets and with the tightening of legislation they must work further apart, work longer hours and be competitive. Stephens advocates, “The ideological view that it is the client causing violence is not supported by the evidence.” There is no exact data, nor up to date data, in the UK to support this accusation yet, from Stephen’s accounts we can understand how the worker and client relationship has been put under strain and integrity sometimes must be forgone if they are to continue working.

What Stephens proposes, alongside 700 global organisations including NUS and Amnesty International, is a decriminalization of sex work. This is not the same as legalization, such as what is seen in the Netherlands, but rather calls for the criminalizing of consensual adult behaviour to be abolished. So far New Zealand is the only country that has implemented decriminalization. But, the UK is a long way off this ideal and we are still unconvinced that it will ever be realised. For Amnesty was supposed to send a representative to the SU’s talk with Stephens however, they had to withdraw through fear of a backlash. Since Amnesty has taken a stance for the decriminalization of sex work they have suffered immensely as an organization and on an individual level. Kate Allen has been personally victimised on mumsnet by being called a liar and a pimp. In the sex industry power, sex and money all come together and there is no objective view on the industry as a whole and because of this the whole issue becomes according to Stephens an “incredibly emotive situation.” Amnesty are still trying to find their voice and confidence on the issue however, there is no data readily available in the UK and so it is difficult for organizations to back their argument. Also in terms of political reports and academic papers there are none, at least no peer reviewed, accurate papers. The noise in the media surrounding the sex industry can be harmful and although New Zealand has made ground in placing the industry in a laboured framework we still cannot deny the abuse that occurs in prostitution.

It would appear to us that the sex worker stands outside of the workforce, as sex work can be more damaging to society and the individual than it is rewarding. This is not to say that in the future with more protection and a change in legislation it could not be profitable and better protected. However, it is it still a dangerous industry in which credibility and safety are held at ransom. We applaud Stephens for speaking out however question her knowledge on migration and politics as she offers a narrowed perspective that does not include society as a whole. Perhaps with more investigation and academic research there would be a deeper understanding yet from what we have gathered the UK is not yet ready to integrate the sex worker in the apparatus of industry.